Frieda Pushnik was born on 10 February 1923 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Although healthy, Frieda was born without
arms or legs — caused, Frieda said, by a botched appendectomy performed on her mother.
Despite her lack of limbs Frieda taught herself to perform many useful tasks, some of which would become part of her act.
Frieda attended public school, carried to class in the morning by her mother and home again in the afternoon by her brother
William or sister Erma.
In 1933, ten-year-old Frieda was engaged by Robert L. Ripley for his first Believe-It-Or-Not Odditorium
at the World's Fair in Chicago. In pitchcards, Frieda was generally held by her mother, who
would be her constant companion through her career. Ripley promoted her as "Freda Pushnik, The
Little Half Girl Born Without Arms or Legs":
Although born without arms or legs, she has overcome this handicap to the extent that she can
do many apparently unbelievable things. She writes beautifully, threads a needle, and works
jig-saw puzzles. At the Ripley ‘Believe-It-Or-Not’ Odditorium her cheery smile has won her a
host of friends.
Pushnik spent six years with Ripley, but in 1943 she joined the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey
Circus Sideshow, becoming a member of their 'Congress of Freaks'. This arrangement became a family affair
with sister Erma working under the big top as a trapeze artist and dancing girl for several seasons
before becoming the secretary to the manager of the circus. Traveling all over the country
with her mother and sister, Frieda worked for Ringling until 1956, after which she entered into
semi-retirement in southern California.
Frieda made a brief foray into film, appearing in The House of the Damned (1963) and
the Argentine remake filmed the following year. In 1981, Pushnik appeared in Sideshow, a
made-for-TV movie. Other than that, Frieda seems to have enjoyed a quiet and comfortable
retirement in Costa Mesa, well looked after by her family.
Frieda Pushnik, the Armless and Legless Wonder Girl, died on Christmas Eve of 2000 at the age
of 77 due to the effects of bladder cancer.
My portrait of Frieda Pushnik was partly inspired by Fra Filippo Lippi's
15th-century painting of an unknown Italian lady in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The space depicted in that painting, with a gentleman peering in through a window, reminded me of
a peepshow. One would certainly not be disappointed to find this attraction on display.
[To see more drawings from this series, please visit the Prodigies